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Talking with Tom Hanks about his gripping new film, 'Captain Phillips'

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The shoot for Captain Phillips, off the coast of Malta aboard the sister ship of the Maersk Alabama, was fast paced. "There was one scene that was 16 script pages long," Hanks says. "Getting that into acting shape, it takes hours. You're toying with dialogue. You're negotiating the physical stuff, and you just shoot that all day from first moment to the last. Before I saw the movie with the subtitles, I didn't know what the guys playing my captors were saying in Somali. Greengrass comes from that documentary background with that ideal: 'I'm not going to make the story; I'm going to capture it.'

"A lot of filmmakers are really not interested in that truthful element at all. There are people I respect who say you've got to take what really happened and just throw it right out if you're going to make a movie. I disagree. When you can find the real-life procedures, you can react to them. I can learn the procedures, and then I can do the behavior, based on that procedure. I can then react to what goes on. This is the only stuff I know as an actor. Basically, that's what the job is. Lawyer, cab driver, physicist, alien from Mars: you've got to figure out what the procedures in their lives are, and then react to that."


The scene in Captain Phillips everyone will be talking about is when Phillips is examined by Navy corpsmen while in a noticeable state of shock: it's one of the most impressive moments Hanks has committed to celluloid. "We didn't know we were going to do that scene," Hanks tells me. "While we were aboard the Navy ship, we learned that Phillips had been in the infirmary. We decided to have a look at it, and brought the cameras. The poor people in there, they didn't know they were going to be in a movie that day. If the scene had been on the schedule, it might not have ended up as freeform as it did."

Hanks talks a bit about Toy Story ("It's actually grueling work"), and Greengrass' previous films ("I was one of the few people who saw United 93 and I thought it was one of the best pictures of all time"), but with Captain Phillips, it's the movies Hanks hasn't yet made that are starting to look most enticing. Once upon a time, Hanks told a reporter he'd done 20 movies and that only five were any good. It's some 70 movies now. I wonder out loud if he feels his acting is getting better as he ages.

"I've learned how to manage the distractions," he replies. "I finally lost most of the degrees of self-consciousness that came with acting—I think it was working on Cloud Atlas (2012), which was so magically demanding every day. Being older is a help—you become less vain."

To illustrate this last point, with his voice reverberating in the giant room, he launches into a story that only Tom Hanks could tell.

"When we did The Green Mile (1999) we had these prison uniforms. We're trying them on. Frank [Darabont, the director] is worried the hats look silly. I said, 'Frank, we need the hats. Because we've kind of got this thing. When they first bring in the prisoner, we have to have the hats, because we've gotta say, "OK, you're on Death Row." You know how you can tell that? Because we're wearing our hats. Then we'll take off the hats, and we'll become regular guys.'"

"But when I first saw myself, I realized I look goofy in a hat, and I have to accept that," he recalls. "I think in the old days, I would have said, 'I'm not wearing that fucking hat, it's stupid.' Now I don't care."

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